COVID-19 and the human experience: An anthropological perspective

Posted on July 07, 2020

Dr. Cassandra Workman in a facemask
Woman wearing a mask stands in front of campus building
Dr. Cassandra Workman

The impacts of infectious disease aren’t just biological. Disease impacts all aspects of the human experience for individuals, communities, and cultures – and often results in permanent, long-term shifts.

These kinds of impacts have been the focus of Dr. Cassandra Workman’s work and research for the past decade. As a biocultural anthropologist with a background in public health, she’s particularly interested in how humans are impacted by food insecurity, water insecurity, and infectious disease.

The assistant professor of anthropology arrived at UNCG last fall after having worked at NC State for a year. Previously, she lived and worked in several countries in Africa, conducting research and working as a monitoring and evaluation specialist.

It certainly hasn’t been the year she expected. Workman, along with the rest of campus, transitioned to online learning in March, and subsequently cancelled all summer research trips.

Nevertheless, her work couldn’t be more relevant. In the Q&A below, Workman describes the intersections of food/water insecurity and infectious disease, how the pandemic will permanently change human interaction, and the ways in which she and her students have responded to these seismic changes.

Tell me more about your research and how it relates to what’s happening now with the pandemic. 

I study water insecurity, food insecurity, and infectious disease. These three things tend to happen together quite frequently. For example, someone who is malnourished may also not have access to clean water, and therefore they might have other illnesses, often infectious diseases, in addition to being malnourished.

What is interesting intellectually about coronavirus is that you see a huge linkage between food insecurity and COVID-19. Coronavirus came from animals; it’s a zoonotic infection, meaning it jumped species. You see all this attention on getting rid of wet markets, but anthropologically, we know it’s impossible just to tell people to stop doing something. People rely on animals for food, so what often happens is in the attempt to try and secure food, you can put yourself at risk for infectious disease.

There are other linkages with food and coronavirus. Now, in the United States, we’re seeing that food pantries are completely empty. We’re having a food insecurity crisis because of coronavirus. Additionally, pre-existing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure – both related to diet – seem to be huge risk factors for coronavirus.

You also have to understand the importance of water security. What happens when you don’t have water to wash your hands? How do you maintain safety if 25 people are reliant on a single pump? Or if people share water containers? Globally, we don’t have the data yet, so we don’t know how these factors could affect the course of the illness.

There seems to be growing awareness of food insecurity in the United States. What about issues of water insecurity? How are Americans impacted? 

There is this assumption that here in the United States, we don’t have water insecurity. We have municipal water, and some live on well water, and there’s the idea that our water should be safe. But people who study water say that’s not actually the truth. People in the U.S. are water insecure, but we’re not totally sure what that looks like.

My colleague at Penn State, Dr. Asher Rosinger, publishes quite a bit on bottled water. When people don’t trust their tap water, they’ll buy bottled water. This puts undue financial stress on people. In Flint, Michigan, a lot of people were forced to buy bottled water because of their unsafe municipal water. Even when they were given filters, they continued to buy bottled water, and rightfully so, because they just didn’t trust the water. I would argue that it’s not just about having water, but it’s about having water that you trust. Water that smells OK, that tastes OK – water you think is safe.

What kinds of pandemic-related conversations took place in your class this spring? 

In the past, in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, I’ve had my students draw a community map of the key resources they need to succeed. They would draw maps that had the library, their dorm, or their church – places that they feel are resources. This time, I asked them to draw their new normal – what it was like for them to experience lockdown and how has this shifted. I’m hoping to analyze these maps and work with some of my students to publish a paper.

It’s really important to see how the quarantine has impacted students. So many of my students were talking about feeling untethered. They lost the structure of the day and were challenged to put meaning back into their day. They talked about the importance of getting up, going to campus, and doing these activities that they are no longer able to do. They explained feeling anxious and depressed; they had so much unstructured time, that for many of them, it made it difficult to do anything. Others faced the stress of working during a pandemic or the stress of losing a job.

From a broader anthropological perspective, how do you think the pandemic will impact human interaction and relationships long term? 

We will be permanently changed by this. I can liken it to 9/11 – it fundamentally shaped our understanding of terrorism and safety and the experience of flying. There’s no way this can’t permanently change something. For example, if I’m in the grocery store now and people get too close, I’m hyper-aware of it in a way I never was before.

It will be fascinating to see how people use virtual connectivity moving forward. At first, I was very excited to use Zoom. I needed that human connection, but it didn’t substitute very well. And then I found myself getting Zoomed out – it was actually more exhausting. I prefer to talk to people on the phone now. I found that really interesting, and it happened very quickly. From a public health perspective it can be very frustrating to see people not follow the stay-at-home orders, but from a human perspective, it makes a lot of sense.

Will we have a long-term shift with regard to masks? Will people be wearing masks every flu season? In multiple cultures throughout the world, mask wearing is normal. We are not a mask-wearing culture, and now we’re seeing the cultural politics surrounding masks. It will be interesting to see how things evolve.

Hopefully there will be long-term conversations about improved safety nets. I think most public health workers would say that we need that. In the U.S., there are such structural inequalities and health disparities already, and we have to remedy that. We see the Black Lives Matter movement happening at the same time as the pandemic, and these aren’t separate events. I think this is a time to sit and think seriously about the structural changes we need to make long term. How can we reduce disparities? How can we put better safety nets in place?

Interview by Alyssa Bedrosian, University Communications
Photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications

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